Are you struggling just to get a scroll through your newsfeed? Are you becoming overwhelmed by all the bad news you see constantly? The truth is that there is a great deal of suffering and injustice we are exposed to on a daily basis, and in order to not be worn completely down by it over time, we must develop the tools to manage it.
I’m not sure that suffering and injustice have actually increased in the world, but due to the internet and the existence of easily accessible news sources, our awareness of and exposure to the suffering and injustice in the world has grown enormously in the last fifty years. To use some well-worn phrases, knowledge is power, and power corrupts.
It’s important to remember that if we are reading headlines or watching what “news” is placed in front of us, much of the time what we will be exposed to is something awful. What makes the headlines and gets clicks are the train wrecks, mass murders, and catastrophes.
Audit Your Exposure to Suffering and Injustice
Understanding this skew toward the negative in media coverage, a partial recommendation to the problem is to police your intake of all things media, asking yourself some tough questions.
There’s a goodfor this that I recommend you use when deciding whether you should say something. You ask yourself the following questions:
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
-Using this as a guide, here are some questions to ask yourself about your media intake:
- Is this information accurate? (Is it true?)
- Is this information helpful to my understanding the world and my role in it? (Is it necessary?)
- Is this information being presented to me in a way that increases the negative effect on my emotional state above and beyond the effect that the actual news would already have? (Is it kind?)
When you read an article online or watch something, use your diligence in determining whether the source is reputable. You can check to see if many news sources are. Because it is human beings who are responsible for this, no matter the source, there will be some . Explore this and know where you are getting your information.
All this being said, I am not advocating hiding away from the media or from the problems of the world. Attempting to control what you expose yourself to in order to create a whitewashed world where you have no understanding of what is really happening is no more healthy than being overexposed to cruelty, brutality, and suffering spun with hidden agendas.
I have written more than once that your mental health depends on your ability to deal with reality. Your job is to aim for the “sweet spot” of exposing yourself to reality which you have fact-checked for both accuracy and no added manipulative BS, but still taking it in doses that do not compromise your ability to manage reality. Now to answer the original question about managing when the reality that remains is still full of suffering and injustice.
How to Manage Exposure to Suffering and Injustice
You can use a process that is very similar to ones that individuals who are managing a trauma that has exposed them to suffering or injustice use.
- Feel your feelings
- Don’t “feed” your feelings
- Understand and embrace your limitations
- Find your tribe
- Act within your sphere of influence
- Take care of yourself
Feel Your Feelings
First, when you’re exposed to suffering and injustice, you’re likely going to feel something. Maybe even a lot of things, and sometimes you’re going to feel things very powerfully. Sadness, confusion, anger, overwhelm to name a few. It’s important to understand that it’s normal and healthy to be in touch with your feelings and that you are feeling some of these feelings precisely because of your ability to respond as a human being to suffering and injustice.
But, compassion fatigue is a real thing. If you stay stuck in feeling response mode or just “feed your feelings,” the risk of burning out and becoming either depressed, numb, or unable to process any more information is very possible.
Don’t Feed Your Feelings
The last thing we want is for people to see suffering or injustice and have no reaction, to become so desensitized or depressed that it has no effect at all. Allow yourself the time and space to feel your feelings, safely share or express them, and talk with others about them. One of the best things to do once you’ve allowed yourself to feel your feelings upon being exposed to something deeply troubling, is to prevent feeding your feelings.
To avoid feeding your feelings:
- Don’t “stack” more bad feelings or experiences on top of the current ones. Avoid adding on all of the other times you’ve felt this way or been exposed to something similar or you can become overwhelmed.
- Don’t forget to balance the current feeling or experience with good feelings and experiences. No matter how bad any one situation is, it’s never all bad, throughout history, everywhere. Try to avoid getting stuck here by recalling or going on a search for people not causing suffering and not screwing people over in the world.
- Don’t make predictions based on your current feelings or experiences. Seeing awful things doesn’t mean more awful things are going to happen. That’s a fear. You can feel that, too, but you don’t want to feed that feeling, either.
- Don’t draw conclusions based on your current feelings or experiences. You don’t know what anything actually means simply because you know how you feel about being exposed to something. You have more work to do before you can begin to draw conclusions, including balancing feelings with researching, analyzing, and thinking carefully about what you want to do. Critical thinking helps to prevent feeding feelings.
Understand and Embrace Your Limitations
All of us are limited human beings, with only so much we can do to change things. While it may seem counterintuitive do so, that’s actually one of the most important facts to not rail against, but to accept and embrace.
We have very distinct limitations when it comes to responding to suffering and injustice in the world. We can only do so much. As one human being, there is only so much I can do. That can be another source of suffering, if I let it. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it is also the thing that keeps me sane…realizing that I alone did not create the mess I am seeing, and I alone am not likely to be able to clean it up. It’s an interesting soup of helplessness, humility, responsibility, compassion, and confusion about how to be helpful. But, many good things have come from that interesting soup.
We don’t have to be able to do it all, know it all, or even understand it all in order to turn the tide on the helplessness piece of this. You need to do a couple of things to manage this fact that you alone cannot change the suffering or injustice that you see. But, you alone, can take the next steps.
Find Your Tribe
If you are responding to seeing suffering or injustice in a way that is causing a profound personal reaction, then there is an incredibly high probability that you are not the only person on the planet who is having that reaction. Maybe you feel that way, because in your family, workplace, neighborhood, or community no one else seems to be bothered or affected the way you are by something. But, I can tell you that you are not alone. There are others out there who feel the way you do. Or would, if they knew what was going on. So, you need to go find your tribe. Find out who else out there cares about what’s happening the way you do. Find out if there is anyone who is doing something about it. And if no one else is yet, tag…you’re it! You get to be the one to name the tribe, if you feel called to do so. The important thing to know is you’re not alone and you don’t have to deal with any of this by yourself. Reach out and discover how true this is.
Act Within Your Sphere of Influence
To move from a state of helplessness, which can lead to depression, to a state of empowerment requires that you simply act within your own personal sphere of influence. You need to do something about what you have seen, witnessed, or experienced that allows you to move from feeling to action. Preferably after you have researched, analyzed, thought about it, and found your tribe. Action that follows straight from powerful emotion is not always the most helpful or effective for creating change. But, there are exceptions.
Acting within your sphere of influence can be as simple as writing an email to your legislator or as complicated as planning how to get supplies to a devastated community. Who you know, what resources you have, and the time and energy you want to commit to responding to what you have seen will play a part in what you do.
And acting within your sphere of influence can also mean taking the time, energy, and resources to take care of yourself (rather than others) so that you can be around to help fight another good fight in the future. Again, you don’t have to take on every fight. It’s not sustainable and it’s not required.
When there were several mass shootings in this country in the last 12 months, I was witnessed repeatedly the suffering of the victims, saw only a lip service “thoughts and prayers” response from those who had the ability to take a stand to prevent more gun violence in our Congress and Senate, and as a result I felt incredible sadness, anger, frustration, and helplessness. I felt those feelings intensely, grieving for lives lost unnecessarily. And I knew that I, alone, could do very little about what was happening.
I chose not to feed those feelings, however, and instead found others who were having a similar response to the events. Luckily, this was not hard to do, as I was not alone in how I was responding to this trend. I joined a group dedicated to preventing gun violence in both our schools and community gathering places. I wrote to my legislators and have become committed to knowing if and by how much the NRA is helping to fund the campaigns of anyone I intend to vote for. I wrote an answer on Quora to try to help those whose anxiety levels related to mass shootings were extremely high. And I participated in a nationally organized march against gun violence with my daughter. Moving to action was empowering, but didn’t stop me from feeling sad or angry. It gave me something to do to try to help, effectively reducing feeling helpless.
Take Care of Yourself
The world needs good people to not get worn down by all the suffering and injustice around them. You can take it on as a personal goal to not allow yourself to become depressed by what you are exposed to. Because, if we lose you because depression leads to suicide, we all suffer and your loss itself will become a great injustice.
It’s getting tough out there. It actually always has been. But, we are in this together, and we need to stay human and stay strong. I hope we can all help each other to learn how to perform this emotional alchemy to manage suffering and injustice to attempt to create a better world.
“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other…not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learned how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.” ~Nelson Mandela